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25 More Reviews of Music

by Dave Heaton, Scott Homewood

Click on a musician's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.

HiM, I'm Gonna Watch the Bluebirds Fly Over My Shoulder, Jonathan Inc., Junkbunny, Kosmonaut, The Lucksmiths, Dale Maxfield, Melodie Group, John Moremen, Jennifer O'Connor, Palestine/Coulter/Mathoul, Photon Band, Pipas, Potion, Primitive Painter, Razorcuts, The Sinking Ships, Slick Fifty Seven, Summer at Shatter Creek, Jenny Toomey, Ultra Living, Ultramarine, The Violents, The Wakeups, Susumu Yokota

HiM, HiM Remix Series #1: Japan (Bubblecore)

It makes sense that HiM's music makes excellent source material for remixers, given that their Miles Davis-inspired sounds already have an open-ended, exploratory nature about them. The first in a series matching HiM's songs to remixers from around the world, this 12" EP involves three musicians from Japan. All three are perfectly suited to this material, as all three have an amazing knack for conjuring up wondrously varied electronic music filled with subtle power. Kicking things off is Nobukazu Takemura's take on "A Verdict of Science. Always one of the most interesting remixers around (check out his amazing take on Yo La Tengo's "Danelectro"), here he deconstructs the song in a stylish, laidback way while throwing in some of the most soothing radio fuzz you'll hear. Susumu Yokota's "Out Here" takes the joyous, party side of HiM's music and gives it an electrifying, electric futuristic vibe. And then Ultra Living close the EP out on a more jittery note, giving "Sea Level" an unsettling, mechanized feel. All three musicians approach HiM's music wide-eyed and ready to create; they take already expansive music and expand its boundaries in fascinating ways.--dave heaton

I'm Gonna Watch the Bluebirds Fly Over My Shoulder…Twilight Furniture Comp Vol. 1 (Twilight Furniture/North of January)

As Orange Cake Mix, Jim Rao makes pretty, gentle pop songs about the stars, the moon, rivers and universal love. With any music he's involved in, expect catchy, low-key melodies and harmonies in a lush atmosphere that's about looking wide-eyed at the beautiful side of life. That might sound sappy to you, but his music isn't to my ears, because of its sincerity and sheer beauty. I'm Gonna Watch the Bluebirds Fly Over My Shoulder is a various-artists CD lovingly compiled by Rao and his wife, filled with great pop songs that have a similar mood as his own. There's 20 songs created by 11 different bands, including Orange Cake Mix. The songs fit together so well that the album seems less like a grab-bag than one cohesive vision, one whose attitude you might be able to guess from the back-cover watercolor of a bluebird sitting on a rainbow. Still, the first song, The Twin Atlas' "Sleep in Late, Laugh All Night," starts off with the line, "Watch out who you love/in case they say 'please hand me the gun/and ask you to pick or target someone." So while the music is sunny, the emotions are complicated. Though the collection has few-to-no mis-steps, the highlights include two hyper-friendly ditties from The Smittens, one an ode to a music collection left in a box at the parents' house, the other an exceedingly giddy sing-a-long called "Gentlefication Now!" that sounds like the Pogues might sound if every member were Jonathan Richman. Other high points are a gorgeous, melancholy summer song by The Twin Atlas, two psychedelic/warp-out instrumentals from Zenith 33, a haunting cover of Brighter's "Around the World in 80 Days" by The Reds, Pinks and Purples, and four Orange Cake Mix songs, one an instrumental featuring especially crisp guitar playing and the other three great dream-pop tunes. There's also songs by The Knit Separates, The Youth Souvenir, Colin Clary and the Magogs, The Hi Fi Envelope, The Single Tear, and Zelium Quang. You might not recognize many of these groups by name-I certainly don't-but their songs will become instant friends.--dave heaton

Jonathan Inc., Halfway To A Better Place (Anniedale Records)

While only a six-song EP, the band Jonathan Inc. Shows a lot of promise and really makes me look forward to a full-length release. The EP starts out with a gentle, almost hushed whisper of a number called "Wandering" and starts to build in both tempo and power from that song on. The melodies are very strong and leader Jonathan Anderson really has a marvelous way with his voice, using it in ways that show off it's range and also varying it's intensity and dynamic textures to add a lot of depth to his songs. A lot of singers just sing and hope for the best but it's obvious Anderson is trying to craft certain specific moods by how he weaves his voice in and out of the music. It's more than just a communicating of the words, it's more of a blending between his voice and the music that gets the message across almost without the words. A more musical touch more common to jazz vocalists than pop. But pop is what we get here, although a more subdued version more fitting for chilling than dancing. This is an album for sitting at home, after a hard day's work and just letting the music wash over you and remove all the tension. Excellent. {}--scott homewood

Junkbunny, Bump (Pink Hedgehog Records)

I might describe pop-rock trio Junkbunny as "quirky," if that word didn't make me think of music I hate. For Junkbunny do have the sense of humor, playfully non-conformist attitude and sweet yet spunky melodies of a band like the Barenaked Ladies (or, to be kinder, They Might Be Giants), yet unlike those bands there's real heart and genuine spontaneity behind Junkbunny's songs. It doesn't sound like trying to be clever just for its own sake, just that a fun, casual, and slightly odd approach to rock comes naturally to them. Doing what fits your personality without caring about what people think forms part of the lyrical subtext for Bump as well, particularly on songs like the goofy "Some Natural History," a brief showcase of the distinct traits of various animals, and "Normal Human Being," a defense of social misfits and nonconformists. Bump is a short recording, about 25 minutes, but it makes an impression. Junkbunny's music isn't slick or dressed up in fancy clothes, but it's smart, charming and a whole lot of fun.--dave heaton

Kosmonaut, Desert Song/Bee Song 7" (Matinee)

Kosmonaut kick off their debut US release, a two-song 7", by taking you on a leisurely, relaxed drive out into the desert. The soundtrack to this drive is gently rising waves of synth behind a melodic guitar ballad about holding on to something in life. The B-side (titled "Bee Song," of course) throws some subtle electronic beats and an almost ferocious electric guitar into the mix, while offering an equally calming pop song about regret. Melancholy often goes down best with superbly crafted melodies and harmonies; these two songs are more proof of that.--dave heaton

The Lucksmiths, Midweek Midmorning (Matinee)

The song "Midweek Midmorning" is a horn-laden melodic blast about deciding what to do with your day--go outside? stay in? That might sound like a trvial topic, but the Lucksmiths' songs all about conveying the feelings that lurk behind everyday moments. "You beside and bluest skies above me/spring fashion week and don't we both look lovely," they sing with absolute glee, projecting the simple happiness of being outside on a nice day with a loved one at your side. What drives their songs besides a knack at capturing real-life is a skill at songcraft, at wrapping everything up in wonderful, tuneful packages. "Midweek Midmorning" is the album track on this 3-song single, a glimpse at their upcoming new album. The two B-sides are just as nice, especially the closing "Requiem for the Punters Club," which finds them in a quiet, nostalgic mood, thinking about lazy Sunday afternoons and good times spent in comfortable places with friends.--dave heaton

Dale Maxfield, 5'6 in a 6' World (self-released)

My favorite song on Kansas City-based singer/songwriter Dale Maxfield's last album, Midnight Street, was the one loose, rock-and-roll moment in an album of quieter folk-rock ballads, a song that was recorded on the fly. For his third album, 5'6 In a 6' World, Maxfield essentially recorded the whole album in that way, by gathering some friends and running through a batch of songs, without worrying endlessly over the details. In the liner notes he refers to this as an "experiment," but don't expect "experimental music." It's an experiment for him as he's a studio whiz kid used to paying close attention to where every sound fits with the others. Here he's taken a more laidback appproach to the recording, and it gives the album a more relaxed feeling, which to my ears makes it all the more enjoyable. This isn't his rock album by any means, but at times it has a much more spontaneous feeling, on both mid-tempo pop-rock songs like "Mississippi Lies" and on ballads like "Lullabye of New Year's Day," which though serious and melancholy, has some extra spunk through some electronic programming running underneath the song. Those electronics also form part of a subtle undercurrent running through the album. While Maxfield's forte is mellow, lonely-heart ballads that sound like a better version of what's on adult-contemporary radio, 5'6 in a 6' World has a 1980s new wave influence that's not right on the surface but is definitely there. "Do Not Be Shy" could be a Depeche Mode song, plain and simple, if its acoustic guitar setting was replaced with synthesizers. Then there's songs where Maxfield does add 80s synth to his sound, like "Holding On." And the whole album closes on an unlisted bonus track, an earnest piano-ballad version of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. While his version takes the 80s style out of it to concentrate on the emotions of the song, it does serve to end the album with a reinforcement of both the 80s influence and the album's emotional theme of the heartbreak and desparation involved in the search for love.--dave heaton

Melodie Group, Updownaround (Matinee)

"Hold my hand/keep me safe and warm/kill the enemy/don't let him bury me," Roy Thirlwall sings at one point during the Melodie Group's Updownaround, epitomizing the album's tone of combined longing and insecurity. He's always looking for a comforting touch, always desiring someone or something, but he's simultaneously always coming face to face with heartbreak and loss. Yet he meets that dark side with a smirk and a dry laugh more often than tears, not to mention with the tools of an expert songsmith: melody, harmony, mood and the capacity to turn a perfect phrase. While Thirlwall's other band The Windmills sets sadness against uptempo pop hooks, The Melodie Group uses slow, tuneful guitars and bass plus beats, synth and other subtle flourishes. The atmosphere is just right for explorations of emotional hurt and resignations to eternal sadness. Updownaround has a wonderful feel to it, reminiscent of a whole stream of great pop gems that dove into sadness with style. The album's title and rollercoaster cover photo seem like a gentle joke about the emotional ups and downs that Thirlwall sings about, yet throughout the downs are reveled in more than the ups. "You arrive with a bandage for my head/but I don't ever want to be repaired," he sings at one point. He's "glad to be unhappy," as Rodgers and Hart once wrote, sitting alone with his melancholy and feeling Ok about it. In fact, the one straight-ahead love song on the album, a 1960s cover called "When Loves Come Along," is hard to take sincerely in the context. It's tough not to think, "Is this for real?" as he matter-of-factly describes the arrival of perfect love. Yet when the lack of love and happiness are on your mind this much, there's always a glint of hope in everything; it's inevitable. The Melodie Group hasn't given up on love, though they're not expecting its arrival anytime soon, either.--dave heaton

John Moremen, EP (Bus Stop Label)

A true journeyman, Moremen has had a varied pop-oriented career, playing at various times with Half Japanese, The Neighbors, Goat 5, and The Orange Peels (as their drummer!) in between his own solo side projects. While a powerhouse lead guitar player and more than capable songwriter, Moremen's proficiency at drums adds a lot of rhythmic backbone to his playing, adding an unmistakable quality to his fretwork that bolsters his soloing above the ordinary. Mind you, he is not a guitar wanker on the Malmsteen bandwagon. Moremen plays concise pop songs with a minimum of baggage but maximum hooks and brief, striking guitar leads that cut to the point and leave you breathless, wanting more. Even though Mormen seemingly gets too bogged down in other bands to put a full-length album together, this 4-song EP has a plethora of hooks and packs as much melodic wallop as anything put out today by the so-called power pop mafia. Fellow popster Tommy Keene would do well to take Moremen's recordings and woodshed a little bit. Very melodic and rocking.--scott homewood

Jennifer O'Connor, self-titled (Kiam Recording Company)

"Last night I did not forget, but you did," Jennifer O'Connor sings quietly but forcefully on the second song of her self-titled, first full-length release. The album has a quiet, melancholy folk-pop mood to it, yet it's charged with emotions like these. O'Connor has a way of singing that seems gentle but isn't necessarily, that sounds pretty and relaxing but is also quite heart-baring and intense. The recordings are mostly O'Connor and her guitar, delivering introspective, catchy songs about goodbyes, memories, moments of pain and moments of hope. The album was recorded in Florida, as the palm tree-sunset cover photo and the song "Pink Florida" testify to, yet she lives in New York City now. Musically the songs betray no specific place, though lyrically O'Connor describes both places in detail. "N Train, going home, I am here alone/Night falls on city skin, it's closed off and withering," she sings at the start of one song, making you feel like you're there with her. That sharp view of New York City cuts especially deep on the bluntly titled "Falling Towers," which starts with a spoken meditation on the idea of NYC as an apocalyptic place before leading into O'Connor painting a picture of a city built on fear. "We don't pray to a higher power, we just watch for falling towers," she sings. The song never specifically mentions the 9-11 events; it's less about the specific events than about capturing a certain ghostly feeling, which is does exceedingly well. Love, horror, hope, sadness, the desire to escape…these are just some of the core human feelings that O'Connor is able to tap into with her songs. That she does so in a heartfelt, real-life sort of way, within beautiful songs, is what makes this album so remarkable.--dave heaton

Palestine/Coulter/Mathoul, Maximin (Young God Records)

Whenever people go on about the glut of CDs that are available to buy these days and how that somehow dampens creativity or hurts the music world, it always makes me think about the multitudes of amazing recordings I come across on a regular basis and wonder if I'd be finding the same variety if I was doing this at other points in the past. While there's no doubt legion of great musicians who have been overlooked by most people over time, these days it seems like nearly every lost legend has some great indie label ready to release their works. I may be exaggerating, but it makes me happy to see under-hearalded musicians get another chance. Maximin takes the music of one such composer, Charlemagne Palestine--whose biography is an amazing read, filled with important roles in the worlds of art and music--and matches it with two younger musicians. It is thus both a rediscovery and a brand-new journey. Experimental musicians David Coulter and Jean Marie Mathoul have taken Palestine's music and reconfigured it, adding their own sounds and textures. The resulting album both offers Palestine's music and interacts with it. The 7 tracks, built around three different original pices of music by Palestine, are beautiful, haunting minimalist works that envelop you with moods and sounds. Organs and synthesizers seem to be the key instruments, though Coulter and Mathoul have added a whole landscape of voices, beats and sounds to complement and converse with the original music. Maximin is interesting in how, for listeners like me who are previously unfamiliar with Palestine's music, it's both an introduction to the past and a step into the future. In both regards it's exciting.--dave heaton

Photon Band, It's a Lonely Planet (Darla)

It's lonely in outer space, and here too, but at least there's music to comfort us. The Photon Band's It's a Lonely Planet is an interstellar trip into rock history, or a rock-historical journey into outer space, one of the two. Art Difuria, who is the Photon Band, is adept at crafting 60s and 70s-ish rock with a psychedlic tinge. Here the songs are melodic and dreamy, with guitars that shiver and shake but also break out in a very rock-and-roll sort of way. The style is like glam-rock with stars in your eyes instead of glitter and eyeliner. "We are from outer space, they just put us in this place," DeFuria sings against the sounds of shooting stars on "OuterSpace," one of many songs here that use the imagery of astronauts to explore emotional territory familiar to everyone on this planet, like feeling like an outcast or trying to do beautiful things with your life. Many of the songs on It's a Lonely Planet sound both new and like a song you've heard a million times before, especially "Closer," a Motown-meets-2001 slow-dance dream. It's a Lonely Planet is special enough to make you feel like a stargazer who's just glimpsed something truly magical in the sky.--dave heaton

Pipas, A Cat Escaped (Matinee)

The songs on London duo Pipas' album A Cat Escaped are a unique sort of dance-pop combination. Breezy and stylish, the songs have the upward movement of dance music, the element that gives you a rush of sorts, yet they're so laidback and unassuming that it's doubtful they'll be spinning at any dance club anywhere anytime soon. So instead they'll work to get the minds and hearts of headphone listeners dancing, helping motivate them to keep doing whatever they're doing with their lives. Pipas' songs are catchy beyond the limits of that word's definition. Over drum machine beats and guitar, singer Lupe Nunez-Fernandez sings witty, endearing lyrics like "Being with you is like killing Bob Dylan/if I had to do it I would die," in a quick but very relaxed way. Sometimes she sings like she's speaking to you instead of performing, yet in some of those same moments you'll catch yourself thinking, "wow she has a great voice." And like all good pop music, there's both moments that feel transcendent and moments that touch your heart. Pipas is a great pop mystery in a sense. Whether their music is moving you physically or emotionally, you won't be able to pin down what about it is affecting you so. On the surface their music seems simple, but deep down it doesn't feel simple at all.--dave heaton

Potion, Circa (Blue Orange)

On their 4-song Circa EP, San Francisco duo Potion come at you with a wave of pure style. The title track swirls together a Stereolab-ish bounce, crisp acoustic guitar and Anne Maley's sultry pop vocals, plus whispering French voices in the background. All of the songs have a fresh, upbeat sound, somewhat retro in tone but full of life. Yet Potion aren't all about flair and sonic fashion; their songs have memorable melodies and heartfelt lyrics that tackle love and loneliness. Their style will catch your attention first, but underneath it lies solid songwriting and genuine emotion. {}--dave heaton

Primitive Painter, Armadillo in the Snow (Dead Digital)

The title track of Primitive Painter's Armadillo in the Snow EP takes a couple simple, gorgeous synth melodies and places them against a backdrop of clashing trash cans, far-in-the-distance techno bass, and someone quietly humming along. One of the prettiest dance tracks I've heard in years, it brings to mind some sort of fantastical dance party set in a hybrid of the North Pole and gritty city streets. The other three songs are that dance party kicking into high gear, yet with a trace of something sinister hovering about. "Mantra" throws the sounds of sharp knives and other instruments of terror into the mix, stirring up some fear to go with the beauty, while "People's Parasite" brings in a guest speaker to talk about world politics over a backdrop that's both friendly and kind of creepy. The EP closes with "Foetal Attraction," one last dance-club blowout that also serves as a haunted lullaby. The more time I spend with Armadillo in the Snow, the more mysterious it gets. There's majestic beauty and dance-floor energy, but also touches of the bizarre. And what is that armadillo doing in the snow, anyway?--dave heaton

Razorcuts, R is For…Razorcuts (Matinee)

The number of legendary bands that I've never heard of before just astounds me, not because I feel like I know it all but because it makes me aware of how many amazing musicians likely exist right around us at all times, without us knowing about them. The UK band Razorcuts meant a lot to a lot of people in the 1980s, though they're new to me. Their sound is like one part brash rock in the style of both The Kinks and the Buzzcocks and two parts sensitive, graceful pop. Their songs are pretty, emotive and relaxed, but have an edgier rock side underneath. R Is For…Razorcuts, which puts together 21 tracks from the group's career (selected by the band), is a class-A retrospective, with essays and photos to give us unaware a great sense of both the band's history and the context from which they arose. --dave heaton

The Sinking Ships, Out of Key Harmony (Darla)

If you think about what it is your average person likes about "oldies radio" or the great pop singles of the past, it's comes down to a few fairly simple things: a great melody you can sing along to, a style that's pleasing to the ear and sentiment that rings an emotional bell in some way. The now-defunct Sacramento, California band Holiday Flyer and its offshoots excel at these sort of pop songs--catchy songs with heart that would be all over the radio in an ideal world. Like California Oranges, The Sinking Ships features two of the key members of Holiday Flyer, though in this case it's Katie Haley (nee Conley) and Verna Brock, not Brock and Haley's brother John Conley (as in the Oranges). In fact, since brothers Matt and Ross Levine are part of both bands, the main difference between the Sinking Ships and California Oranges is that one has one Conley sibling and the other has the other. What the bands share besides members is a knack at drop-dead-perfect pop songs, in this case sung just as perfectly by Katie Haley. Every song on Out of Key Harmony is sunny and melodic, even when the lyrics deal with heartbreak, as they often do. For like most great pop music, the lyrical center here is matters of the heart. But The Sinking Ships win there too, by avoiding clichés or simplifications. Whether it's successful love, failed love or hoped-for love that's the topic, The Sinking Ships know how to phrase the sentiments in a way that hits home. Pulling at your heartstrings while making you dance about with joy is a winning formula, one The Sinking Ships have perfected.--dave heaton

Slick Fifty Seven, The Ghost of Bonnie Parker (Laughing Outlaw)

If there's a more appropriate band to be on a label named Laughing Outlaw than the outsider punk-country outfit Slick Fifty Seven, I'm not sure who it is. Maybe the name is what attracted a group from East Dallas, Texas to a label based out of Australia, who knows? In any case, Slick Fifty Seven's The Ghost of Bonnie Parker has a distinctly outlaw side to it, as it seems equally inspired by Hank Williams and punk rock. Slick Fifty Seven are the type of band that'll play rockabilly-esque rock rough and fast, and then switch to a late night cowboy's lonely ballad. And in both cases, the song'll be about heartbreak and hard drinking, about escaping to the open road without realizing you can't out-run a broken heart. Heartache after heartbreak run through The Ghost in a very real way. Take a song like "Jessica." Nominally a call for a longed-for companion to come back, the song also touches on the struggles of everyday life and what we do to survive, like drinking to forget the fact that you got laid off from your job. What makes Slick Fifty Seven's music feel more triumphant than sad is the way that they sing about these hard facts of life with confidence and swagger, over rev-ed up guitars, bass, and drums. Sounding often like a wilder, tougher version of Wreck Your Life-era Old 97s and at times like a less gimmicky version of early Reverend Horton Heat, Slick Fifty Seven transcend the fact that they're traversing well-covered musical territory by injecting their songs with so much passion and energy. The Ghost of Bonnie Parker is one of those albums that flies past and just begs you to press play again. It's also one an album you can imagine singing aloud to in the best and worst of times, a party record that would also give you comfort during the hardest of times.--dave heaton

Summer At Shatter Creek, self-titled (Absolutely Kosher)

Halfway through Summer at Shatter Creek's self-titled debut album, there's a song which starts out with electronic beats that sneak toward you, speed up, seem to mutate into fuzzy live drums and lead into a gorgeous, layered atmosphere that makes you feel like you've risen up off the floor. And that's before he starts singing; each time he (Craig Gurwich, that is, the one person behind every sound on the album) opens his mouth throughout the album, the gorgeous sound of his voice (in my mind, often reminiscent of Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers) itself makes you euphoric. Often so much so that when you realize he's singing about something scary or heartbreaking--as in this particular song, "My Neighbor's Having a Seizure"--you wake up a third time. Yet while the first two were about being pulled toward into the fantasy world of the pure, gorgeous folk-pop of your dreams (a la Nick Drake or Astral Weeks, the third is about being brought back down to earth. Guriwch's music is space-bound and heavenly, yet his lyrics are about the pains and joys of everyday life. They're also often funny and sad at the same time, like on the perfect "I Need a Vacation," a genuine expression of how hard it can be to deal with the stress that comes from the small frustrations of daily life, like how drivers cut you off or your neighbor plays his music too loud. That it, like every sentiment Gurwich expresses, is set against a stunning bed piano and guitar, arranged ever so gently and transcendently, somehow adds further depth to the feelings and to the song. By making music that's both heartwrenchingly real and above-the-clouds beautiful, Summer at Shatter Creek has found the proper tunnel right into our very beings. It's music that knows how much life can hurt but is reaching for the stars in the same moment.--dave heaton

Jenny Toomey, Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno (Misra)

Tempting appears like an odd project on paper: Jenny Toomey interpreting the songs of Franaklin Bruno, as if he were Gershwin and she Ella Fitzgerald. Yet if the smartly cynical pop songs that Bruno performs, solo and with his rock band Nothing Painted Blue, seem too esoteric for such a tribute, one listen to Tempting will convince you otherwise. Toomey casts the songs in the holiest of lights by performing them as if she were a night club singer trying to wow her audience. Bruno's songs, generally given fairly lowkey, straight-forward arrangements when he performs them, are here set as splendid highbrow jazz standards, or glamorous, sophisticated pop songs. Horns and strings grace the songs, and Toomey unleashes her inner Ella, crooning like a superstar. On one level this makes for a gorgeous pop album that would be loved by people who've never heard of Bruno or Toomey. And the way the songs are presented plays up Bruno's songwriting skills-melodies, harmonies, overall song construction and lyrics- in such a way that every minute makes you more aware of his talent. Even listeners (like myself) who are already fans of Bruno's music will find themselves hearing new things in his songs: noticing lyrics, emotions and the songs in general in a different way. Covering great Bruno songs from all over his career, including recent solo songs like "Just Because It's Dying," Nothing Painted Blue songs like "Masonic Eye," and songs from his obscurer releases, Tempted is a convincing argument for Bruno as one of today's best songwriters. It does make him sound like a Gershwin or Johnny Mercer, like he could be writing the songs that make the whole world sing. If enough people hear this album, it should bring on a new league of Bruno-worshippers. And Tempted feels so metropolitan-hip and covers such a grand range of emotions, subjects and styles that in an ideal world it'd be all Bruno would need to make every music publication that ever described his music as too "brainy" or called his band "nerd rock" print a full-page retraction.--dave heaton

Ultra Living, Through (After Hours/Bubblecore)

The Japanese duo Ultra Living's 2000 album Transgression blew boundaries away with an intoxicating, sci-fi alchemy of jazz, hip-hop and sample-laden electronics. On their new album, Through, they've set up an equally fascinating world of mystery, yet this time they seek transcendence through what at first seems to be stillness, creating a sound based on quiet calm and meditative repetition. The album opens with the ultra-minimalist, 15-minute "Ana Zirikiain," which sounds vaguely like a Steve Reich composition played on a harmonium or a slowed-down remix of Jon Brion's score to Punch-Drunk Love. As the song progresses, something foreboding builds in the background, eventually releasing in a dizzy electronic spin before the melody starts over. In the background of every song there are sounds lurking, quickly showing themselves before disappearing. The second song, "Mazy," is a weird lullaby that keeps dropping away so we can hear a few seconds of the sounds of a fancy dinner party. The title song gives us about 15 seconds of silence and then 2 quick seconds that give us a glimpse of some other world. Near the album's center, a robot-child sings us a spooky tune that makes the puzzle that is Through even more puzzling. In Through's second half, radio fuzz become a key element, first by playing a symphony with some organs on "A No Since When Since"… that is, before the song ends by momentarily dropping us in the middle what seems like a train station in Japan. If Zen-like stillness at first seemed to be Through's aim, as the album proceeds you start to realize that you're being moved all over the place. There's constantly glimpses of other worlds, maybe dreamed, maybe real, that make you feel like Ultra Living have placed you inside wires and tunnels that travel the globe, occasionally letting outside sounds and voices seep in. Perhaps we're hearing the sounds of radio waves because Ultra Living has taken us inside one! That feeling of traveling through invisible means is confirmed by "Oblivion," where sonar-like sounds replace the radio waves, melodies sound like we're living underwater, and then we hear ourselves actually reaching the shore, with waves splashing around us, before we drop back underwater. Absolutely fascinating, Through is sonic travel of the most unusual kind. Where Transgression transgressed the boundaries between genres, Through transgresses the barriers between solid, liquid and gaseous forms, letting us hear what it might sound like to exist in all three.--dave heaton

Ultramarine, Every Man and Woman Is a Star (Darla)

Ultramarine take a philosophical approach to dance music on their second LP, 1992's Every Mand Woman is a Star, re-released 10 years later by Darla Records. The duo creates lush, relaxed, pretty electronic grooves and then throws spoken and sung words designed to provoke listeners to really think. They attempt to make, as they allude to in the liner notes, music for the body and the mind. The album is a classic collection of ambient techno that also includes meditations on the meanings of the universe. "Weird Gear" features one of the band members singing about truth in a quietly tuneful way, where "Pansy" sets a meditative mood upon which a woman speaks about the search for meaning: "They're looking for spiritual reasons, they're looking for something more than this world can offer." The way that her words interact with the repeating synth lines, interrupting piano bridge and a chanting choir in the background show that Ultramarine see provoking thought and creating fascinating grooves part of the same action. The tracks that are more fully instrumental, that don't have such obvious intellectual queries on the surface, still use music to push your mind in unconventional directions. For example, they'll set electronic beats with the unlikely combination of flute, harmonica and people laughing, making you wonder what they're up to even as you sink into the comfortable sonic furniture that they're created. They never focus on intellect above all else. There's songs that will make you gleefully escape for any real-world concerns, like the fabulous "Saratoga," a funky and loose tropical jam that's definitely someone's vision of paradise, or "Panther," a jittery circus of a song. By that freedom from thought is in its own way part of their goal of integrating the body and mind. As a unnamed dancer puts it at the start of another song, through dancing she could release her repressed anger and the unhealthy dogmas that she subconsciously learned and "find that emptiness where I could begin again." {}--dave heaton

The Violents, Rebecca's Morning Voice (Mud Records)

Champaign-Urbana's The Violents kick off their Rebecca's Morning Voice with a song quite reminiscent of another band that once came from the same town--Sarge. Like that band (and its singer's current band, The Reputation), The Violents use an edgy but sweet pop song ("Sledding") to tell an unbridled and somewhat fierce end-of-relationship story. "We'll wake up real slow and have no recollection of how the hell we ever got in this place," one of the group's two singers sings. Though The Violents occasionally pack that same emotional punch via more meditative ballads ("Casualties," "Whore), most of the album plays up the edgy, fierce side of the band, as they stomp through open-hearted confessionals done up as raging punk-rock, with unstoppable drums and loud electric guitar. At times the group sounds no doubt raptured by the "riot grrl" punk bands of the 90s (Bikini Kill, especially), but why shouldn't they be? Those bands blended honesty, rage and political action in amazing ways, and you can do much worse than try to follow in their footsteps. That said, The Violents came across less as imitators than fans. Rebecca's Morning Voice has its fair share of diversity, stretching as it does from the heart-baring "Sledding" at the album's start to a no-holds-barred, love-letter-to-a-nonconformist called "Franni" that closes the album (not to mention the cheeky mini-cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize" that precedes it). The Violents do whatever they want, and they wear their rebelliousness well.{}--dave heaton

The Wakeups, Wanna Meet the Wake Ups? (Laughing Outlaw Records)

Now that bouncy pop is finally making a comeback after many years of hair metal, then grunge, then Brit-pop, then electronica and finally boy/girl band stupidity, it might actually be a good time to tune back in to that local college radio station you abandoned long ago. It's likely that, thanks to the Strokes, Hives et al., they've hopped on to the bounce pop bandwagon and are actually pumping out some worthwhile stuff. Hopefully, the station near you is also playing plenty of the Wake Ups as well. Originating out of Australia and produced by the mighty Aussie-pop genius Michael Carpenter, this band combines the youthful energy of the Strokes with the polished melodic craft of mid-period Oasis. If you are interested in plenty of gritty, melodic guitar playing blended with an almost punk-style rhythm section playing melodies influenced by the best in Brit-pop, then this is the CD for you. A bonus is that this is almost the perfect summer CD so get it now and have it all ready by the time you head to the beach.--scott homewood

Susumu Yokota, The Boy and the Tree (Leaf/Skintone)

Susumu Yokota at times seems like a master of all trades. He's a DJ, who's released platters of sharp house music, yet many of his albums seem more like the work of a minimalist composer, someone like Glass or Reich. The Boy and the Tree stylistically reflects the latter two composers, as well as astute creators of atmosphere like Ennio Morricone. Yet it has a diversity of sound relevant to both the varied filed of electronic music and today's post-everything world. Like his last album, the equally gorgeous Grinning Cat, The Boy and the Tree is a textured work of beauty that feels less a product of our earthly world than of some far-off dream universe. Yet while Grinning Cat, as a sonic realization of the Alice in Wonderland story, was an overtly dream-like world, The Boy and the Tree feels more inclusive of the sounds of our globe. There's rhythms and sounds allusive of the music of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, yet the electronic haze cast over it, plus the way that Yokota never settles on one particular country but instead merges everything through his own vision, makes this music far removed from the bland, new-agey music that the genre tag "world music" evokes. The Boy and the Tree is more like a trip through the imaginations of the whole word, with voices and sounds from everywhere blurring their way through the background. It also has an overly meditative and pretty mood fitting for an album that Yokota created as a mediation on nature, one inspired by a film and a place: Princess Mononoke and the Japanese island of Yakushima. Even outside of the theme of nature, it's fitting that Yokota mentions a film and a place as inspirations: The Boy and the Tree has the same magical, elusive qualities of both.--dave heaton

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